It must be autumn in Westport, Connecticut, since the leaves are turning, the days are getting shorter and the chestnuts sure are roasting. A particularly old chestnut is now on display through October 27 at the Westport Country Playhouse in the from of Mark Lamos' revival of the 1937 comedy "Room Service," probably best known as the source of a subsequent Marx Brothers' film of the same name.
Fortunately for theater audiences, this chestnut is not overcooked. If anything, it reveals what can happen if certain portions are undercooked, leaving one hungry for an evening that is more consistently crazy and zany across the board. Admittedly, expectations have changed since Allen Boretz and John Murray first wrote the play, as comedy has become richer, speedier and even more sophisticated. For example, Michael Frayn's "Noises Off" elevates sight gags, double entendres and controlled chaos into a heavenly art. And even though this play was not written with the Marx Brothers in mind, one can't help wondering what they, or even the Three Stooges for that matter, would do with the three main characters.
Even though the Westport Playhouse itself admits that the play is most often revived because of name recognition with the Marx Brothers' slightly altered version, "Room Service," the play, has stretches of purposeful madness that can produce chuckles, titters and even guffaws from the most jaundiced theatergoers. I'm the first to acknowledge that farce and physical humor are not everyone's cup of tea, as any number of my friends hate, no, that is much too restrained a word, actually abhor slapstick. But I tend to enjoy it, especially if the humor springs honestly and genuinely from the circumstances no matter how ridiculous and the resulting laughs are well-earned.
Lamos and his cast do indeed prove worthy of our laughter, particularly in the dynamite second act of this three act work. There seem to be several sequences in this act where multiple plot developments are occurring all at once. Lamos allows them to play out simultaneously, bouncing our attention across the stage amidst the out-of-control chaos. Lamos also seems careful in this act and in portions of the third to overlap exits and entrances through the four doors on John Arnone's hotel room set so that the momentum maintains a lively pace.
It’s only in those scenes of exposition and extended dialogue that the play bogs down and regrettably a lot of that occurs in the first act. The two playwrights spend a bit too much time trying to explain how so many people will end up staying in this single room, with stories of characters being kicked out of relatives' homes or sick of sleeping on shelves as well as setting up the various relationships between characters that are designed to pay off with laughter as the play moves forward.
In addition, the playwrights and, in a way Lamos as director, don't quite signal right off how the audience is to react to the character of Gordon Miller, the beset-upon Broadway producer at the center of the action. We know he's behind in his room and food payments for his large cast of actors; we see him willing to hock his bread and butter's typewriter (the play-within-the play's playwright's typewriter that is), and we see him stringing along a cast member who may or may not be his girlfriend. Are we supposed to like Miller and laugh along with his antics? Or is he really an unscrupulous producer who'll bilk anyone who walks by. The short, thin Ben Steinfeld plays him a bit too realistically and earnestly to earn our immediate sympathy, which also happens with his two cohorts, the play-within-a-play's director, Harry Binion, played by Jim Bracchitta and, to a lesser extent, the loyal but lumbering gofer, Faker Englund, played by Richard Ruiz.
It's only when we see them up against their antagonists that we can really begin to appreciate their predicament and get to rooting for them. Miller's brother in law Joseph Gribble, the panic-stricken hotel manager played by David Beach, tries to reason with the guys to pay up or leave, while Michael McCormick's hotel chain auditor David Wagner brings a heftier, more serious and thus much funnier threat to the situation. It's also interesting that both Beach and McCormick come off as the characters who seem most at home in the 1930's environment. They don’t seem out of place for one second.
Into this mix is introduced the author of the play Miller is attempting to mount, Eric Bryant's eager, yet naïve rube from Elmira named Leo Davis. Although Davis has never been to New York before and seems never to have left his mother's side until now, he's written what's regarded by several producers as a promising play, "Godspeed," which seems to be a cavalcade of American history, sort of a more traditionally patriotic version of a John Dos Passos work. Davis's innocence does contribute further several laughs and helps make believable his sudden relationship with one of the women in the play's cast. What's even better, and helps cement the audience's sympathy for Miller and his associates, is how quickly Davis adjusts to the Miller crowds' wily ways and how easily he joins them in their elaborate plotting.
By the time the third act rolls around, Lamos and company have us eagerly awaiting the next development and though we suspect all will work out well, the fun remains in trying to figure out just how, as a variety of plot points converge with Davis's play finally opening in the long vacant theater off the hotel lobby, the hotel's owner on the way from Washington D.C. where he is a senator, and passel of house detectives snooping around every corner. There's other such (welcome) nonsense as a check that is guaranteed to bounce, an anonymous backer whose name would assure success, and a Russian waiter anxious for a part in the play.
The quartet at the heart of the play do splendidly, as exemplified by an eating scene (what good American farce doesn't have an eating scene?) in which a starving Steinfeld, Bracchitta and Bryant devour a tier of sandwiches and sweets in seconds, while McCormick can easily get a laugh by pretending to be a doctor or simply walking into a room with a three-foot long bunch of bananas. Hayley Treider plays Leo's love interest Hilda quite sweetly and supportively, while Zoe Winters provides Miller's girl friend, Christine, with a wisecracking wisdom that helps inspire some ideas to hoodwink hotel management. Peter Von Berg embodies the Russian waiter quite amiably though he needs to put on more of the Southern accent as the visiting Senator. Beanpole Frank Vlastnik inhabits several multiple roles including an obsequious aide to a notorious millionaire and a remarkably unswerving bill collector.
Wade Laboissonniere has designed a wonderful array of 30's era costumes, from dark business suits to opening night formals, as well as layers of leisure clothes that contribute to a fortunately nonchalant sight gag that wouldn't necessarily work if more attention were devoted to it, especially with modern audiences who have seen that type of joke many times before. The action if nicely if not necessarily entirely comfortably into Arnone's hotel room set with a sofa, two beds, some chairs and, in addition to the four doors, some wall space on which a buck's head will eventually hang.
If one can forget that the Marx Brothers once made horsefeathers out of this play's film version and accept it as a comic play about the struggles of a nearly-broke producer nobly trying to mount a Broadway show, then "Room Service" can be a pleasantly disarming, frequently laugh-out-loud funny way to be warmed by a glowing chestnut.
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